Irina Rebrova Lecture Summary

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 10:33am

Irina Rebrova (Center for Research on Antisemitism, Technical University, Berlin)
2017-2018 Margee and Douglas Greenberg Research Fellow 
“The Role of Oral History Interviews in Regional Holocaust Memory: The Case of the North Caucasus”
November 14, 2017

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Irina Rebrova's lecture on "The Role of Oral History Interviews in Regional Holocaust Memory: The Case of the North Caucasus"

In this lecture, Irina Rebrova discusses her research on the process of remembrance and translation of the memory about the Holocaust in the North Caucasus, South of Russia. She studies the mechanism of storytelling by Holocaust survivors interviewed by the Shoah Foundation in the early Post-Soviet states in the 1990s.

Irina Rebrova, the 2017-2018 Margee and Douglas Greenberg Research Fellow, gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on her research on the process of remembrance and translation of the memory about the Holocaust in the North Caucasus, South of Russia. One feature of her research is examining the role of the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive interviews in the construction of social memory of the Holocaust in the Soviet Jewish community and more widely in the post-Soviet society. During her monthlong residency at the Center, Rebrova examined some of the USC Shoah Foundation’s institutional records about the selection, training, and methodology of interviewers in Russia. 

Rebrova began her presentation with an overview of the history of the Holocaust in North Caucasus. According to Rebrova, before World War II, less than one percent of the population in North Caucasus were Jews. The Jewish population there was made up of Ashkenazi (who were not allowed to move to the region until 1917), so-called Mountain Jews (descendants of the Persian Jews, and in the region since the fifth century CE), and Karaite Jews (Karaites). However, with the beginning of World War II, North Caucasus was considered a safe shelter by the Russian government, and it became the main region for the evacuation of populations from other parts of Russia, increasing the number of Jews there. This evacuation – which, according to Rebrova, included mostly Jewish women, children, and elderly scholars – lasted until the spring of 1942. Citing historian Kiril Feferman, Rebrova stated that around 50,000 Jews from other parts of Russia were evacuated to North Caucasus as of 1942. These incoming Jews were dispatched to resort towns and Russian villages of the region, where they worked at collective farms. 

In the summer of 1942, North Caucasus fell under the German occupation that lasted until the autumn of 1943. Rebrova noted that the characteristics of the occupation in this region were somewhat different than in the rest of Europe, since the Nazis did not create any ghettos here. In addition to ordering mandatory Jewish registration, the Nazis offered them “relocation,” during which Jews were taken away, shot or poisoned, and dumped into common graves. Rebrova described the heated scholarly debate about the number of Jews killed in North Caucasus between the summer of 1942 and the autumn of 1943. According to Rebrova, numbers for this short period range between 65,230 and 77,150 Jews killed. The South of Russia had the highest number of Jewish victims in Soviet Russia (not USSR) - 56% of Jewish victims came from the South of Russia.

Rebrova then focused on the oral histories that are the sources for her research -- 300 interviews from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive and 30 interviews that she conducted herself with survivors. Rebrova transcribed 80 interviews from the Visual History Archive, which she chose based on their content: the life of Jewish survivors from North Caucasus. In particular, Rebrova was interested in the testimonies of the Jews evacuated to the region, who fled and survived the Nazi occupation. The main characteristic of these testimonies, according to Rebrova, is their subjective and fragmentary nature, as well as their focus on current life conditions of the narrator. Offering short excerpts of interview transcripts, Rebrova expanded on four topics she explored and analyzed in the testimonies and her own interviews: 1) stories about the evacuation of Jews to North Caucasus; 2) stories about life in the occupied regions of North Caucasus; 3) stories about the life of Jews in South Russia who were confined in small houses together with Soviet prisoners of war and used for labor, and; 4) stories about interviewees witnessing their close relatives’ deaths, which became defining memories.

After emphasizing the significance of the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive testimonies in giving voice to Soviet Holocaust survivors who had been left out of other oral history projects, Rebrova focused on these testimonies as an element of social memory of the Holocaust in post-Soviet society. In her research Rebrova not only focuses on the mechanisms of the survivors’ storytelling, but also on the mechanisms of conducting oral history interviews. Some of the research questions she addressed included: Who were the chosen candidates for the interviews conducted by the Shoah Foundation? Who were the interviewers, and how did their own personal background and training influence the interviewee’s narration? In particular, Rebrova was interested in the way the Shoah Foundation’s selection of interviewers and their training affected the quality of a given testimony. During her residency, Rebrova analyzed videos of interviewer trainings in Moscow and Kiev in 1996, interviewed a former historian involved with the Shoah Foundation project and training in Russia, consulted with longtime staff members and regional consultants, and reviewed Pre-Interview Questionnaires. Before her residency, Rebrova had already developed and disseminated a questionnaire for former interviewers for the Foundation and gotten some responses.

After presenting some preliminary findings from having consulted the institutional records, Rebrova concluded that the main reason for the variation in quality of the interviews is the variety of interviewers’ knowledge, experience, and training. She argued that a lack of knowledge and pre-interview preparation negatively affected the quality of testimonies and often times prevented survivors from telling their own story. As a guideline, the Shoah Foundation provided interviewers with a list of possible interview questions that could be used depending on the interviewee’s experience. Rebrova found that the regional body in charge of recruiting and supervising interviewers instructed them to ask all the questions on the questionnaire, even when not relevant to the interviewees’ experience, which led to interviewees exhibiting confusion or frustration, repeatedly answering “no” when questions did not apply to them. This had a profound effect on the quality of the interviews, Rebrova argued. In addition, Rebrova noted, each individual interviewer has his or her own perception and intuition about how to conduct an interview. Rebrova suggested that proper training and education of interviewers would improve both their skills and the quality of the testimony. Despite these limitations, Rebrova argued, the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive represents a vital resource for researchers of the Holocaust in Russia. Rebrova expressed her regret that, due to the lack of access to the VHA in most post-Soviet countries, Russian scholars rarely use the testimonies. 

The discussion following the lecture allowed Rebrova to expand on many topics she had touched on in her lecture, including the debate over the number of Jewish victims; how her experience and methodology conducting interviews with survivors compared to the Shoah Foundation interviews; more specifics about the interviewer training sessions she watched; the “re-translation” of interviewees’ stories to different interviewers; the ways in which the structure, goals, and production of the Shoah Foundation project affected the results; and how the national narrative about the Holocaust has changed through different historical moments. 

Summary by Badema Pitic